Saturday, November 12, 2011

King Arthur – A Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part Two

King Arthur – A Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part Two


If these military positions, or one of them, did exist, in some form, in mid to late 5th century Britannia, the question arises as to who exactly these individuals would command: the province’s various warbands or his own provincial army … or both? Generals of the late empire would very often be in command of feoderati (federates) and/or bucellarii (literally meaning ‘biscuit eaters’), but, of course, they could afford them! The former would come in federate ethnic groups, the latter as individual mercenaries, and, perhaps, some ethnic groups. Bucellarii where his personal household troop and could add up to a considerable number when needed. The magister militum Aegidius had 12,000 at one time.

Here is an interesting quote from a paper with the very long title of ARMIES, WAR, AND SOCIETY IN THE WEST, ca.300-ca.600:LATE ROMAN AND BARBARIAN MILITARY ORGANIZATIONS AND THE ‘FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE’ by Richard Abels:

Generals used federates and bucellarii Dick Whittaker observes that the “twin process of soldiers becoming landlords and landlords becoming soldiers” in the late empire facilitated 1) the collapse of the frontiers, 2) the integration/fusion of German ‘barbarian’ and Roman culture, 3) the breakdown of law and the growth of a new culture of private power in which ‘the poor became increasingly dependent on the arbitrary will of the landed rich” (Rich 281). As soldiers became landlords and landlords became the masters of soldiers, private individuals became the heads of military retinues of bucellarii. Though by law bucellarii were required to take an oath not only to their employers (a private contract), but one as well to the emperor (public).

Surviving Roman administrative records show that bucellarii performed public duties (under the direction of their civilian masters) and were liable for military service if called upon by government authorities. The wealthy Apion family of early sixth-century Egypt received tax breaks for hiring bucellarii, whom they used to collect taxes and maintain order during games in the hippodrome. (Lee 165, citing Liebeschuetz, Barbarians and Bishops 45-6. But, as Whittaker points out, “the public oath was of limited relevance if the patron rebelled or if imperial rule was not recognized: the loyalty of the soldiers than became private obsequium [a personal following]” (295).

Archaeologically, one of the key developments of the fifth century was the increasing ‘nucleation of rural sites.

… Small farms disappeared, many vici (villages) were abandoned or removed to old Iron Age hilltop sites, while larger villas … survived, expanded and were often fortified. … [There is evidence] of concentration of property holdings, the increased isolation and inaccessibility of estates and the compulsion on peasants to seek the refuge of the rich’ (292).

Increasingly in the fifth century, the “remnants of the Roman army operated in towns,” and bands of bucellarii in the service of local great men, their patrons, controlled the countryside. The Roman sources term these bands as ‘robbers,’ but it seems probable that they were actually the private forces of local magnates maintaining order and control outside of Roman public authority.

This process was not restricted to ‘Roman’ landlords. It was true also of German chiefs, many of whom were ‘Roman’ generals or federate chieftains. The distinction between ‘Roman’ and ‘German’ itself was disappearing as the cultures merged.

Germanic bodyguards were used by Emperors and it could be as much that they were there, not just for their violent tendency, but because they were (usually) neutral and exotic. (They looked different and talked differently).* This could have been as much the reason some British elites used them as any other … although the fact Constantine III may have taken all the best units (not all) with him to the Continent in his bid for the western Empire may have something to do with it. However, just as happened in the Empire, your bodyguard could turn against you.

(Interesting that the emperor Augustus didn’t dismiss his bodyguard, but put them on an island out of harms way* just as the Britons are supposed to have done with the ‘Saxons’ on the Isle of Thanet. (But see THIS blog).

STRUCTURE The question comes as to how a provincial force would (or could)

operate in Sub Roman Britain, especially if the likes of Higham and Dark are right and we had both a ‘tribal’ (‘Celtic’) king based kingdoms (in the west and north)

and more civil and military civitates in the Midlands and east, at the same time? How do you get powerful kings and their warbands to work under an ‘outside’ commander? The other question is, how would they be ‘paid’?

(HIgham’s theory not withstanding that this civil zone was under ‘Anglo-Saxon’ suzerainty or Chris Wickham’s theory on a greatly fragmented Britain).

The answer to the first question could be that they would probably need to function, in some way at least, modeled on the Late Roman army system. (This, of course, being complicated by the Late Roman Empire’s use of barbarian federates who fought in the own ways). Whether they followed what militarily changes had been going on on the Continent is another matter, and their system may have been an old fashioned one, or a mixture of British and Roman. It may also depend on the part of the old diocese that was in question. If we take northern Britannia first, this could have seen an overall commander in charge of the various forces/warbands that occupied/re-occupied the still existing forts there when they were needed to come together as a combined force. This dux could have either been some over-king (or the equivalent) or a general in the employ of an over-king (as envisaged by Ken Dark). If this over-king had illusions of old imperial Roman grandeur he just might have done the latter. However, if this was the case he may have had to come from a ‘wealthier’ region of the north where surplus grain could be grown, such as the Yorkshire Plain. The old legions of the north had to rely on the southern grain regions to feed the amount of men that were there, though that number would be greatly reduced by this time.

We must also keep in mind, as discussed by Alex Woolf in ‘Regna and gentes: the relationship between late antique and early medieval’ (2003, p360), that kings of Gildas’s time – generally thought to be writing in the first half of the 6th century by all but HIgham – in the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB) and before may not have functioned in the same way as later, Late 6th century and onward kings did and Gildas’s berated five kings of western Britannia may not be representative of those further east or in the north. Nor should the the poetry of the 6th century bards Aneirin and Taliesin of the ‘Heroic Age’ be seen as showing how earlier or more Romanised ‘armies’ functioned. Woolf wonders if the other leaders Gildas isn’t happy with (but doesn’t mention by name) in these Romanised regions are the iudex mentioned by him:

Reges habet Britannia, sed tyrannos; judices habet, sed impios —“kings Britain has, but tyrants; judges she has, but wicked ones” (DEB, §27)

… if they are not one and the same as Gildas later says the kings also act as judges. Higham thinks these leaders were the rectores, speculatores and duces (more on this later).

The question often arises as to why use feoderati and bucellarii when you could use your own indigenous people?

There are two answers: 1) Using, what has been termed the Gurkha Syndrome by military sociologist C.H. Enloe, you chose the most feared warriors to deal with the feared enemy, just as the British used the Gurkhas, and ‘Saxons’ were certainly feared. 2) Contrary to public perception, mercenaries are actually more likely to fight because that is their chosen profession, unlike some ‘levyman’ plucked from the fields. It also means you can keep them active for longer as they don’t have to farm. This is not to mention that mercenaries were very often put at the front, to save a kingdom’s own warriors.* The more attractive alternative (and one perhaps borne out by the archaeology) might be that the various civitates and/or kingdoms that made up a province had to supply the men when needed for a combined force. Or, they were there to support a provincial army by only having to supplement a smaller group of feoderati and/or bucellarii that were the dux’s personal troop. This latter scenario might have been more acceptable, as any general with a large army could have become a threat himself. This would see him with his own smaller unit, or field army, for deal with raiding and the like, and supplemented by a combined large force for set battles. If this is how an historical Arthur did function it would be somewhat of an irony, especially if we add the possibility that he was of mix Hibernian (Gaelic) and British blood (More on this below or see THIS blog). Imagine: an Hiberno-British Arthur fighting with Germanic/Scandinavian/British/Hibernian mercenaries! Sacrilege! Yet perfectly normal for the time.

To need a provincial army, of course, would require there being a large enough enemy or enemies to warrant it, with a large enough border to protect, perhaps covering more than one civitas/kingdom. Or, maybe, it was could be used to bring more force to bear at a particular point along that border than could be supplied by a single civitas/kingdom army? Is this restructuring what Ambrosius Aurelianus started and what enable the Britons to fight back?

How would they be paid? Well, they would be paid in kind, in some way; certainly not with money, except old coinage to melt down. They could also have been given food, metals or a share of any booty. They may have been promised land, either during service or after it.


Most Roman emperors didn’t lead from the front (although, of course, some did) unlike the Hellenistic kings, like Alexander, who did fight at the front.* How did the British kings in the 5th century see themselves? like their ancient British forefathers or like mini Roman emperors who used generals or what the later Welsh would call the pen teulu (captain of the kings retinue)? Could have been a mixture of course.


The Late Roman army had to change its tactics in the 5th century and learned that large pitched battles were not always the answer and smaller guerrilla type operations were the way to go against the northern barbarians. A type of warfare that had been used against them for centuries. It’s this kind of warfare that Collingwood envisaged Arthur undertaking as a comes with a field army against his enemies, who very often may not have been united themselves. It’s always possible that a commander of a provincial force would fight this way at times, as set battles with one large army against another is not always the answer. There would have to be offensive tactics used with surprise attacks on strategic points. Arthur’s supposed battles, many at rivers, may have been just this. Cutting off supply routes or attacking places such as salt production sites or mineral mines could also have been a method used.

(* My thanks to the Ancient Warfare podcast: War as a livelihood – Mercenaries in the Ancient world - of 04/03/09 for this information.)

In Part Three we’ll look at what Gildas called rectores. These could be provincial governors and I’ll explore if this is what Gildas meant by the term, as well as looking at the five provinces that made up the old Roman diocese of Britannia and the various theories as to some of them stil existing in Gildas’s time.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to comments, thoughts … and corrections, Mak 52.860268 -3.063694

About badonicus My real name is Mak Wilson … well, actually, that’s my stage name and my real name is Malcolm Wilson. My work is in film and television as a puppeteer/actor/director/voice artist/writer but I also have a passion for the Early Medieval period (‘Dark Ages’) of Britain. Originally from Stanley in Co, Durham, I now live in Oswestry, Shropshire, on the English-Welsh border with my wife Fiona. We have four ‘boys’: Ben, Toby, Josh and Tom, as well as a wonderful black lab called Jet.

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Posted by badonicus on November 12, 2011 in History, King Arthur, Late Roman and Early Medieval Britain